These baby pigs were the first to be born without innate viruses in their DNA
Growing human transplant organs in pigs has become a more realistic prospect after scientists used advanced gene editing to remove threatening viruses from the animals' DNA.
While scientists had long hoped to be able to transplant animal organs to humans in need, they had always run up against the problem of so-called PERV cells.
"We now have living, healthy, four-month-old pigs that we have engineered", George Church, Professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and adviser to eGenesis, told Fox News.
This is the first time researchers have been able to demonstrate they were able to inactivate PERV and open the way for xenotransplantation (the act of transplanting animal organs to humans) without cross-species contamination. In conjunction with a method to inhibit primary cell death during multiplex genome editing, researchers successfully produced viable PERV-free porcine embryos via somatic cell nuclear transfer, using engineered primary cells. So far the team has only made female pigs, raised in a lab. "We think the advancement of gene editing can help us address both of them", Yang said. This involves immunological changes as well as making the tissues compatible and fixing blood-clotting issues.
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"This is a major milestone", Church added. Researchers in the study used the gene-editing technology to effectively cut out a porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV) commonly found throughout pig bodies. Those cells proved more fragile when subjected to CRISPR's hack job: Once edited, they failed to grow normally, possibly because the damage to their DNA prompted them to stop dividing or self-destruct, Yang says.
There were 33,600 organ transplants previous year, and 116,800 patients on waiting lists, according to Dr. David Klassen, chief medical officer at the United Network for Organ Sharing, a private, nonprofit organization that manages the nation's transplant system. If this happened, it may cause diseases like cancer.
Pig organs are the same size as human organs and function pretty much the same way but pig to human transplantation has always been an elusive goal for researchers due to fear of activating dormant viral diseases in the pig's cells. In the new work, done with a team of Danish and Chinese collaborators, the eGenesis team applied the CRISPR system to cells derived from the connective tissue of fetal pigs. Tector says his own team stopped worrying about the viruses years ago, because it is not clear whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will require the viruses to be removed prior to transplantation. The research is basically a "safety check", says Pablo Ross, a geneticist at the University of California, Davis, who did not take part in the study. "I fail to understand the significance of this [infectivity] unless it is shown that it can cause some kind of disease". Still, Denner says, "If it is possible to knock [PERVs] out, you should do it".
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